Broken or just sprained?

In one of my all-time favourite movies, the girl character tells the boy character that he’s “broken”. Later she revises it to “sprained” – but  before learning that he’s a professional killer.

I was recently reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s story about his dishwasher — particularly some of the astute comments — and it sent my brain madly off in all directions at the same time.

In his blog, Mr. Zeldman recounts an interesting and amusing story about his dishwasher, which is not working as he’d like it to, but which is not, in the strictest sense, broken, and so cannot be repaired.

What rings so true about this story is our general attitude towards anything we touch or use on a daily basis and how we as people react to a ‘broken’ experience.

A lot of what we use every day isn’t really broken, but it doesn’t really work right, either. If it’s something like a cd player with a sticky drawer, we live with it because our options are usually a) try to find someone that fixes cd players or b) buy a new ipod or other media player (finally an excuse) and then feel guilty about sending a perfectly (almost) good cd player to the landfill, or recycling facility, or whatever. There are lots of people for whom a dent, scratch, or sticky door means immediate replacement or repair, but for the rest of us, the seconds bin is our second home.

For me depending on what it is, something may have to be really broken for me to contemplate replacing it, or fixing it. Example: I have a Timex watch that I love. It has one of those great Indiglo nightlights, which not only lets me tell time in the dark, but lets me see whether the child I’m trying to get to sleep at bedtime really has their eyes closed. A couple of months ago, the nightlight stopped working; it still keeps great time, but no longer has the nice bonus feature I like so much.  Now I can either buy a new watch for $70, in which case this one will be garbage (just what we all need, more garbage), or my other option is to go to the Timex Canada website, print off a (very confusing) repair form, and mail them my beloved watch in hopes that they can fix it. I have no idea how long it would be gone, and I’m one of those people who likes to know what time it is. You see my problem? I’m guessing that until this watch completely dies, I’m going to keep wearing it.

How broken does something need to be for us to fix it? People like Jim Kunstler believe — and I tend to agree with him — that for humans in general to really shift their behaviour, something pretty catastrophic has to occur: think the heart attack that finally leads to a lifestyle of good diet and exercise, the financial crisis that finally makes people take notice of the irresponsible antics in the financial sector.

In my work as an Information Architect and Usability Specialist on the web, I’ve seen some pretty broken website experiences, and I’ve watched as agencies and clients ‘fix’ them in different ways. It’s interesting that what I think of as broken is often not what everybody else does. What’s broken to me is merely a sprain to someone else. Sometimes the things that I think are essential to fix are at the very bottom of the list from the client’s perspective.

At the end of the day, a lot of us just limp around on a sprained website, managing to overcome bad usability, poor form design, and wtf? moments through willing suspension of disbelief and dogged determination. We get there in the end because we really want to, or we absolutely need to. It’s painful, but we can use it.

I’m wondering what the catastrophic change has to be to shift our patience for chronic pain? Will there be one? Just wonderin’.

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